The gaslighting effect comprises psychologically manipulative actions, which are subtle yet elaborate, that systematically dismiss personal beliefs and bend reality to attain power and maintain controlled dependency.
In simpler terms, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse where the abuser (here, the gaslighter) psychologically manipulates the abuse victim (here, the gaslighted) such that the latter doubts their own mental capabilities; their perception, their memory, their judgment and their sanity. You may believe that something is wrong but you may be made to believe that it is not. They may maintain power and dependency by defining your sense of reality and attacking your sense of judgment.
The term originated from Patrick Hamilton’s play, ‘Angel Street’ (1938) and George Cukor’s subsequent film adaptation, ‘Gaslight’ (1944). The play revolves around a man who has murdered an apartment owner in her building to acquire her jewels but fails to find them. He visits her apartment every night to search for them. Only, he turns on the apartment gaslights which dims the building lights. His wife, anxious about his disappearances, notices the dimming and questions him about the same.
In response, he dismisses her claims and manipulates her into believing that she is insane because she is imagining the dimming of the lights. When she asks about the sound of the footsteps in the apartment, he reinforces the insanity angle by stating that since the apartment is empty she is obviously imagining the footsteps as well. The popularisation of the gaslight effect motivated specific psychological research.
According to psychological research literature, ‘Gaslighting’ is a form of narcissistic abuse where gaslighters have a pathological need for veneration and constant affirmation that they satisfy, by generating dependency in others. They do so by attacking and denting a person’s confidence and sense of judgment to manipulate them into believing that they are reliant on the gaslighter for basic emotions and understanding. They make emotional slaves out of those who they abuse.
Gaslighters may use several strategies over a considerable period of time. Some of the most common strategies are listed here:
Gaslighters often deny or pretend to forget their history of abuse, pertinent situations and conversations, factual information and even physical evidence. It may be in the form of calm understanding (Are you sure that it happened? You may be mistaken.) or irritated aggression (Why are you making up stories!? What is wrong with you!?). One may certainly know that it happened but their blatant (confident) denial of the reality may make you doubt your memory entirely. The more one doubts themselves, the more one allows them to manipulate oneself. For example, in Gaslight (1938), the protagonist blatantly denies the dimming of gaslights and the sound of the footsteps to make his wife believe that she is imagining things.
Gaslighters may often feign innocence or act confused. They may pretend that any harm done was unintentional. They may act surprised when confronted to make their victim doubt their perception and judgment. Feigning innocence may facilitate guilt tripping – another gaslighting tactic discussed ahead. Gaslighters may also pretend that they are confused by the confronted information by pretending that they were unaware of it.